This short story follows two Inquisitors into the belly of Krieg to audit one of the Imperium’s more sinister operations – the Vitae Wombs!
Submitted to http://www.coldopenstories.com as part of an unofficial fan anthology, myself and 8 other authors saw our works publish in March 2020.
You can view my piece on the Cold Open Stories website via this link, or view it below.
Read time ~15mins
Three hundred and thirty eight seconds was the time that Inquisitor Marax counted in the freight elevator. After the lift began its descent into the abyss, he struggled to gauge its acceleration for the first few hundred feet. He centred his mind and inner ear to keep track of the perceptible feet and seconds that passed by into the bowels of the planet.
Three hundred and thirty nine. Three hundred and fourty. If his sense of speed and acceleration were accurate, this lift already traveled almost two miles beneath the surface.
It’s a long journey into the belly of Krieg, it seems. He wondered to himself. Is this secret really so grotesque?
He seldom performed audits as part of his duty; he scarcely let them enter his vox channel, much less perform one in person. But the Indomitus Crusade marches onwards like the endlessly spiraling arms of the galaxy and it demands tithes as eagerly as the galaxy demands entropy. His visit to Krieg and the Vitae Wombs was an appointment in duty, though he deigned to say that morbid fascination drew him to the place.
Marax felt the freight lift start to decelerate. Four hundred and eleven. Four hundred and twelve. When it came to an eventual halt and the doors of the elevator peeled backwards they revealed Inquisitor Gorland stood in front of it.
“Ahhh, Inquisitor Marax.” he cooed. “Glad to see you.”
“Gorland.” Marax said, with a curt nod. He stepped from the elevator shaft into the corridor next to Gorland. Even without his colleague’s stoop, Marax stood a whole head taller than the diminutive Gorland.
The two men walked down the corridors of the underground passage at an even pace. This appointment wasn’t time-critical to either of the men and neither saw fit to make conversation for the first few hours. As they went further into the catacombs, Marax could feel a low heat in the air – the icy and unforgiving surface of Krieg felt like a long way above them.
“Are we close?” Marax asked when a stale stench started to fill his nostrils.
“Almost.” Gorland replied.
A vault door guarded by two Kriegsmen soon blocked their path. Marax couldn’t help but consider this futile level of security. If a minor horde of orks, or a daemonic rift ripped their way down the elevator shaft then even the most tenacious Korpsman couldn’t do anything to stop them getting through the door. However, nothing held more power than the mere presence of the God Emperor; Gorland opened one of the lapels on his trench coat to reveal his sigil of the Inquisition. The two Inquisitors didn’t even break their stride to pass through the swiftly opened vault door. Both the guardsmen stood at attention while the men passed.
Waiting on the other side of the door was a Death Korps Commisar who was also stood to attention. She didn’t speak, even when the two men joined her. Marax squinted at the tinted goggles of her gas mask to see if she was staring at the Inquisitors or past them, but it was impossible to tell.
“I am Inquisitor Gorland and this is Inquisitor Marax. We have an appointment with the mistress, are you her?”
“Yessir, Inquisitors.” she said, her voice raspy from the filters in her mask, “I am Mistress Commisar Verlina. Welcome to Krieg, you honour us with your presence. With your permission, I will show you to our administratum office for your audit to begin.”
“That’s why we are here, Mistress. Shall we, Marax?” Gorland asked.
“No?” Gorland and Verlina said in chorus.
“Show me the wombs.” Marax said, his tenor voice lending authority to every syllable. “Leave the paperwork to the Astra Administratum and their servitors. Show me the wombs, I have to see them for myself.”
Gorland’s face was painted in perplexion – if Verlina had a similar expression then it was hidden beneath her mask. Gorland’s eyes rolled.
“Very well. The Inquisitor wishes to begin his audit in the Vitae Wombs, Mistress. Take us there.” he said.
“Yessir, Inquisitors.” she barked. Verlina did an about turn on her heels and marched the men through the underground complex. Her arms swung like she was on parade and her chin was raised high and proud. Marax thought her commitment to her discipline was commendable. An example of the Korps.
When they arrived at another vault door, also guarded by two Kriegsmen, Verlina opened it for the Inquisitors. Pictured through the metal door frame were rows of pods stretching as far as the men could see. When they stepped through the door Marax could hardly believe his eyes.
“That will be all, Mistress Commisar.” Marax said without looking in her direction. “We will conduct our audit in solitude.”
She gave the men a salute that Marax didn’t register but that Gorland dismissed with a kind nod, before leaving the chamber.
Existence of the Vitae Wombs was a known truth in the Imperium but to see them first hand left Inquisitor Marax speechless. His long career in the Inquisition saw him privy to many heinous acts made against, and in servitude of, the great God Emperor. While the nature of the Vitae Wombs wasn’t as grotesque to him as other deeds, it was the scale of them that brought him distaste.
Pods stretched as far as they could see three-high in every direction with only narrow catwalks like the one they were standing on intersecting the columns. Sevitors zipped between pods and loading chutes, picking up or dropping off payloads of cargo as they went. Dull lighting barely illuminated the catwalks but cast an ominous purple hue through the liquid of the pods.
But above all of the visual grotesqueness, it was the sounds and smells that made Marax withhold the need to wretch. The air was sour with the smell of old flesh. It wasn’t completely rotten like on an old corpse, or the heretical followers of the Prince of Decay – those were smells that Marax was accustomed to. This smell was neither of those, it was almost-death, a foulness of flesh that nature would naturally expunge but humanity determined to keep alive. The sounds of busyness were not unusual for Imperial-scale operations, but the sound of the Vitae Wombs was a disorientating mess of aural assault. Screams of women rang throughout the underground cavern. Cries of pleasure, screams of agony, wimpers of pain, shouts of anger. These women suffered it all. Thousands of them all at once.
“Surprised, Inquisitor Marax?”
Marax couldn’t form a retort to Gorland’s sarcastic quip. He was still aghast at the scene. Gorland saw the rigidness in his features and continued.
“It’s a disgusting spectacle, I must admit. Every time I visit I’m still a little taken aback by the sheer scale of the Vitae Wombs. The Death Korps of Krieg provide a larger tithe to the Astra Militarum than any other world in the billions of worlds in the Imperium. That level of commitment comes at a price and the Imperium does not stand for inefficiency in the face of our encroaching enemies.”
“What price is this to pay? Our humanity?” Marax spat, “I should burn this facility to ashes.”
“Mind your words, Marax. Billions of regular humans die every day to protect our species. Do you think the meager tithes of knuckle-dragging serfs on some backwater planet will suffice in bringing the Emperor’s justice to the galaxy? Of course not. We need soldiers to win wars, soldiers who live and die with the Emperor’s name on their lips. The Death Korps have proven themselves exemplary in their service to him. They pay their tithe gladly and greatly.”
“And do they?” Marax asked, pointing a finger at the thousands of pods that each contained a woman servitor somewhere in the process of being artificially inseminated, incubating a soldier, or birthing it to be raised to fight and die.
“If they knew the impact their service has on the Imperium then I’m sure they would pay it a thousand times over.” Gorland said.
“You speak as if you are one, Gorland. Should I say an untruth and credit it to you with the same conviction you speak for these women?”
Inquisitor Gorland scrunched his face in anger and turned from his colleague. He walked to one of the pods and placed his hand on the glass. The servitor inside squirmed and clutched at her enlarged belly. “These women hold more pressure to perform for the Imperium than you or I do. Don’t you see the irony? We are two lofty men talking about women who are forced to give birth to men who are forced to die, all in the name of the Emperor.”
“All men and women are servants to the God Emperor. Worshipping His light is our unifying purpose of existence. Would you prefer to live the life of a heretic, Gorland? I remind you to watch your tongue before I do something about it.” he growled.
“You misunderstand. There is a chain of command in the Imperium–”
“And rightly so!” Marax interrupted.
“Let me finish.“ Gorland hissed “The Imperium is a chain of command like a mountain. The Emperor is the rock at the summit of the great peak of the tallest mountain and all we below him hold Him up. All of us beneath Him are also layers of rock; the Inquisition, The High Lords of Terra, the Adeptus Astartes, and so on down through the layers of earth. Do you know much about geology, Inquisitor?”
“I know enough.”
“Geology is the study of time and pressure. The lower down that a layer of rock rests beneath the surface, the greater the pressure it is under. You talk about how all people are in servitude of the Emperor and that He is the great equaliser of our race, but the nature of our servitude differs. You and I bear the weight of the Emperor only, He is our only master and we answer to no one but His great wisdom. But these,” Gorland gestured to the thousands of occupied Vitae Wombs “They are servant to their inseminator, who is servant to the factory worker, who is servant to the factory foreman, who is servant to the Mistress, who is servant to her commander, and so on all the way through the chain of command. How lofty we are that the only pressure we feel is from that one being.”
“That ‘one being’ is our Emperor, Gorland. I’ll have you for heresy at this rate.”
“Exactly! Don’t you get it? That seething rage, that anger at my apparent lack of faith; I know well enough what the consequences are and I also know that, for as long as I am an Inquisitor, I will answer to no judgement except the Emperor’s. So put yourself in my shoes, imagine you are being accused of heresy. The process for us is the word of one Inquisitor against another. But what about them?” Gorland gestured this time to the closed door where thousands of Death Korps guardsmen were behind. “They are so much lower in the chain of command, and therefore so much lower in the mountain of pressure, that to even breathe a word of heresy could mean summary execution on the spot. Countless layers of judgement sit on their shoulders before they even reach the topmost layers where we sit. And these women in these pods, forced into a life no better than breeding cattle, are even lower. Does that make them less noble? I say no. No a thousand times over! The Imperium is ruled by our God Emperor at the top of the mountain, but it is the countless servants in the bedrock who hold His glory. Don’t forget your place, Inquisitor Marax, it could be a much worse position.”
Gorland slowly walked down a catwalk away from Marax. One of his fingers gently brushed the railings of the catwalk as he wistfully made datalogs of the pods that he passed.
Inquisitor Marax observed his peer perform his duties, finding himself questioning many things.
A great many things, indeed.